A random search for one of the hardest jobs in history led me, in a strange way, to artists’ impressions of workers carrying stone blocks during the construction of the pyramids in Egypt. A more subtle search in a contemporary context has led to images of barge haulers pulling barges up the Volga in the early 20th century in the Russian Empire. At first impression, I was stunned by the sight of men (and women) pulling cargo and other vessels, and wondered if this was a unique Russian experience of the poor looking for work. Upon closer examination, this type of work showed that it was quite widespread throughout Europe, where it was necessary to help ships with cargo move along rivers and canals.
The history of barge haulers and their importance for trade on the Volga dates back to the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century. These barge haulers were hardworking people whose main job seasonally – in autumn and spring – was to raise cargo ships against the Volga. By the 19th century their number is believed to have increased to over half a million before their importance as ship carriers declined and all but disappeared by the early 20th century due to industrial age innovations.
Fortunately, our passion for barge haulers is immortalized in the traditional Russian song and, more importantly, on the canvas of the Ukrainian Russian realist painter Ilya Repin in his painting Burlaks on the Volga (1870-73). It is noteworthy that Repin was not the only Russian who was inspired by the harsh trials of barge haulers on the banks of the Volga. Russian artists such as, Alexey Savrosov And Vasily Vereshchagin, both created original works on their own. It is interesting that the latter painted his genre painting with barge haulers in 1866, seven years earlier than Repin’s painting.
Anyone interested in art history will tell you that Ilya Repin was one of the most famous Russian artists of the 19th century. It is no coincidence that this is my second painting in a series of historical paintings, the first of which Ivan the Terrible and his son (1885), this outstanding artist. What I really like about Repin is his uncanny ability to capture an important moment in time, especially a snapshot of Russian life that was important to him. At the same time, the idea to draw barge haulers on the banks of the river first came to Repin during a summer vacation in Samara on the Volga in 1870. At this time, he met a team of barge haulers, who became a source of inspiration for his first drawings and sketches. He eventually became friends with some of these men and learned that they were not always movers. With a diverse background, from former soldiers to even a deposed priest, Repin drew inspiration from their inhuman hardships, turning what he saw into a masterpiece on canvas.
Repin’s composition is interesting in many respects and, moreover, is an excellent example of socialist realist and genre painting. It is important to note that the work is not just a tragic depiction of the suffering of barge haulers by those who want to make a profit, but evidence of their Herculean efforts to persevere in the face of adversity.
Eleven heroic figures, dressed in rags and tied with leather harness, are trying to drag a barge along the banks of the Volga in a historical painting by Repin. I am particularly intrigued by four features in the way Repin portrayed barge haulers. The first is a blond hauler who stands up defiantly, as if preparing to free himself from the shackles of his leather harness. Next comes the loader at the end of the line, who has resigned himself to the fact that he can no longer pull. Thirdly, the loader, who seemingly looks directly at the viewer, paints a picture of a man almost on the verge of defeat. He leans forward so strongly in his leather fetters that you can feel his desperate effort. Finally, you can’t escape the haggard face of the bandana-clad lead tractor, whose gaze is deeply thoughtful, as if he’s wondering how he got himself into such a predicament. According to Repin, this intriguing figure is the defrocked priest Kanin, whom he met while preparing his work in Samara. Sympathizing with the priest, Repin once wrote: “There was something oriental in him, the face of a Scythian … and what eyes! What a depth of vision!.. And his forehead, so big and wise… He seemed to me a colossal enigma, and for that I loved him. Kanin, with a rag on his head, with his head in patches made by himself and then worn out, seemed nevertheless a worthy man; he was like a saint.”
This painting appears in the public domain.